Sheephead (Archosargus probatocephalus) fishing can be challenging but very rewarding; they are also a species that can make you want to bang your head on the structure that you are fishing. Sheepshead AKA convict fish are notorious for removing bait right off the hook without the angler ever feeling it. The saying goes that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. I would say you need both a little luck, and you need the skill to land your limit of sheepshead.
There are some steps that you can take that will enhance your ability to hook and catch more striped convicts. In this article, I will cover everything that you need to know to become a better Sheepshead fisherman; that way, you are doing more catching than fishing.
The Sheepshead Science
Their scientific name is (Archosargus probatocephalus). I know, say that real fast just once.
Sheepshead average one to four pounds but can reach up to twenty pounds and 29.5 inches.
The Sheephead got its name due to its sheepy appearance. In my opinion, they look more human-like than anything, but they have a unique look that makes you want to smile back and show off your pearly whites.
The sheepshead is a member of the porgy and seabream family (Sparidae), which consists of approximately 120 species worldwide.
Records indicate spawning takes place in Spring, but pelagic larvae are documented to occur from January through May.
Now that we discussed the educational information let's move on to the fun stuff.
Sheephead Recommended Baits
Sheephead naturally feeds on a variety of shellfish and crustaceans, but there are a few specific food sources that they typically can never turn down. Here are our top pics:
Black Marsh Crab, Sesarma cinereum, or S. reticulatum - Have you ever skirted next to mangroves and seen little crabs scurry around the mangrove roots? Perhaps you've gone under a bridge to see these little guys clinging to the pilings? I call them spider crabs, but they are hands down the best sheepshead bait that we've found. We typically always purchase fiddler crabs when we start our adventure to locate sheepshead, but we usually stop to try and catch the marsh crab when possible.
Why do they like them more, you may ask? I am not 100% sure, but I speculate it's because they are abundant in the areas that they feed. We have tested it on numerous occasions, drop a regular fiddler next to a marsh crab, and the marsh crab gets eaten first every time.
COMMON FIDDLER CRAB, Uca pugilator - The fiddler is the crab that you can purchase for four dollars per dozen at your local bait store during season. You can also locate them on the shorelines, beaches, and estuaries. They are typically the little crabs that you see running to their small holes to take refuge when alerted. The fiddler is an excellent alternative to the marsh crab and is much more readily available.
Barnacles Cirripedia (Infraorder) - Coming in a tight third place. Believe it or not, sheepshead love barnacles, and they have the teeth to devour them with ease. Barnacles are crustaceans and are related to crabs. If you observe, within the hard plates, you can see a crab-like creature.
* Here is a fun but bizarre fact: They have the longest penis relative to body size of any animal.
The best part about barnacles is that they are abundant and free, you grab a little scrapper and pull up to any structure that has been sitting in salt water, and you can collect your fir share.
Shrimp (Farfantepenaeus duorarum) - We all probably know about shrimp by now, they are the most common and universal saltwater live bait, and everything eats them. Sheepshead will consume shrimp, but things can get costly quick. I find that it's best to use small pieces of shrimp for optimal success.
Check out this video on how to rig fiddler crabs for sheepshead:
Sheepshead Tackle & Gear
I think your rod and reel play a very vital role in your success when sheepshead fishing. Like I stated at the beginning of the article, they can be very tricky and frustrating. Every advantage that you can get, whether it be your tackle, weather, or bait, is needed when attempting to conquer the striped convict fish. Let's talk about the ideal rod really quick.
I like a 6.5-foot medium-fast rod, one with a sensitive tip but a sturdy backbone. A shorter rod is ideal when fishing close to structure such as bridge pilings, docks, etc.
The reel of choice is a lovely 2500 spinning reel; my preference is the Shimano Stradic Ci4+. This particular reel has a super smooth drag, and it also has enough stopping power to turn fish away from structure when necessary.
Your choice of fishing line is super important. I highly recommend a braided line. Today's super braids are stronger and more sensitive than ever. My personal preference is 10 to 15lb 832 Suffix braid. Today's fishing lines are firm, but they're not abrasion-resistant. Therefore it's essential to use a durable leader material in the form of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. Don't go too heavy; a 20 to 25lb leader is all that is needed to get the job done. You do have to be mindful of leader frail and be sure to retie when necessary to prevent loss.
Lastly, it would be best if you had a sharp hook to make the ultimate connection and give that fish the lip piercing it needs. My go-to hook, most of the time, is a 1/0 Owner J hook. The size is dependent on the bait size, but 1/0 works almost every time.
Where to Locate Sheepshead
- Sheepshead can be found offshore around recks and structure at all times of the year but become very prevalent around the colder months.
- Sheepshead can be found inshore around the submerged structure, oyster beds, bridges, and docks.
- You can find them nearshore around markers, channels, and debris.
Here is a great video showing how we catch sheepshead around piling while using fiddler crabs:
Best Rigs for Sheepshead
Many rigs will allow great success when targeting these tricky fish. Here are my recommended choices for increased hookups:
The Simple hook and split shot rig - Remember fishing for bluegill as a kid? Sometimes the simplest of fishing rigs is all that is necessary to get the job done. I think in a time of technology and overthinking; we need to refer back to the KISS (Keep it simple stupid) rule. Here is how to rig it:
- Cut off approximately two feet of 20lb leader
- Tie your leader to your mainline using the effective Uni to Uni knot
- Crimp the smallest pinch weight onto your leader about a foot or so above the hook. The lead weight is dependent on the strength of tidal flow and water depth.
- Tie on your 1/0 hook with a simple Palomar knot
Here is a great video demonstration if you care to have a more lively interaction:
The Carolina Rig
No, I am not talking about a bass Carolina rig. However, the setup is essentially the same. Here is how I rig it:
- Use a 1/4 ounce lead sinker and slide it onto your mainline.
- Attach a 30lb class swivel
- Tie the mainline to the barrel swivel using a blood knot or your knot of choice
- Attach two feet of 20lb leader to the opposite side of the swivel
- Attach your 1/0 hook
This rig is great because there is no resistance when the sheepshead picks up the bait; you are also more apt to feel the sensitive bite.
Sheepshead is delectable table fare. They consume mostly crustaceans, crabs, and shrimp, therefore, they have excellent flaky meat. Some would prefer sheepshead over grouper believe it or not.
Here is a delicious recipe that will have you smacking your lips in no time:
Sheepshead in Wine Sauce
- Two pounds of sheepshead fillets
- 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt
- Dash pepper
- Three sliced tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Dash pepper
- Two tablespoons flour
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed basil chopped parsley
Sprinkle both sides of fillets with salt and pepper. Place fillets in a single layer in a greased baking dish and arrange tomatoes over top of fillets. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and pepper. Blend flour into the butter and add milk gradually; stir in wine; add basil and parsley; cook until thick and smooth. Pour sauce over top of the tomatoes. Bake in a moderate oven at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes until fish flakes easily with a fork. Sprinkle with parsley. The dish serves six people.
Do you want to get the sheepshead in a fiery frenzy? On the next fishing trip, grab a small shovel or scrapping device and scrape away some of the barnacles on the pilings where you plan to fish. Doing so is equivalent to ringing the dinner bell, and you will have dozens of sheepshead feeding on your chum pile in no time. Simply drop your bait into the madness and wait for the subtle nibble.
Sheepshead are a ton of fun; they taste good and will challenge the angling abilities of some of the best fisherman. Don't get discouraged; apply these tips, rigs, and practices, and I promise you will start to boat more fish. If you enjoyed this content, please comment below. Share your thoughts, tips, and tricks to landing more sheepshead.